Eye on the Enemy Playoff Edition: Carolina Panthers

TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers traveled down two different highways to get to their Wild Card clash on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. Arizona lost four of its final six games to end the season, while Carolina wrapped up its second straight NFC South title by winning their last four games after a 3-8-1 start.

Head coach Ron Rivera says the team is still on a natural high after thumping the Atlanta Falcons 34-3 on the final day of the regular season to claim the division crown, but they’re past that now.

“Yeah, they are, but again, we are [getting] ready for a good football team,” Rivera said. “The Cardinals are coming in. They won 11 games this year. They did a lot of good things.”

The Panthers are riding into the playoffs on the strength of their defense. In December wins over the Saints, Buccaneers, Browns and Falcons, Carolina’s defense gave up less than 11 points per game.

“I think the biggest thing has been what we’ve done on the secondary. We are playing a group of young guys that are learning and developing. What they have done is they have helped us solidify that back half of our defense,” Rivera said.

“Our front half has done a nice job. Our front four has done a good job in terms of run defense and putting pressure on the quarterback. I think our linebackers have played solid for us all season.”

Carolina’s front four can get after the quarterback. The starting four of Charles Johnson, Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and Wes Horton have accounted for 17 of the team’s 40 sacks on the season.

Arizona quarterback Ryan Lindley will be making his first career start in the playoffs on Saturday. He’ll no doubt be under fire all day long from Carolina’s defense.

“They’re good. They’re really athletic and I think they’re front seven is really good,” Lindley said. “Number 59, [Luke] Kuechly, is one of the best linebackers to play in the game right now at the linebacker position. So we’ve got to be on it. They do a lot pressure-wise and they’re ready for us. A lot of it is going to be about game planning and being ready to go and to make sure that we execute on Saturday.”

As the season went on, there was so much talk about a team from the NFC South winning the division with a less than .500 record and hosting a playoff game. A lot of pundits shot down the notion of any team with that kind of record having the privilege to do that.

Rivera feels his team – at times – has played beyond what their record says they are.

“I think we have had our moments,” Rivera said. “We’ve had some really good games where we played really well. Last week was an indication of it, and then we’ve had some games where we didn’t play as well as we were capable, or at least I didn’t think we did. So, there is room for improvement and growth as far as we are concerned.”

Everything on Carolina’s offensive side runs through quarterback Cam Newton. Newton’s had an up-and-down month of December. First, he gets in a freak car accident, which causes him to miss a game. Then he comes back and leads them to victory in their final two games and into the playoffs.

Newton says he’s just lucky to be alive, let alone playing football again after the accident.

“I’m alright. I’m alright. No complaints,” Newton said. “Every day is a constant grind to try and get back at 100 percent and trying to keep up with my treatment.”

Arizona head coach Bruce Arians sees nothing but a physically gifted player when he looks at Newton on film.

“He doesn’t look like a guy who was in a car accident, that’s for sure. He’s a freaky athlete,” Arians said. “To survive that wreck and come back and play, he had to be in unbelievable condition to do that. He is as healthy as he’s been all year.”

Rivera, Newton and the Panthers no doubt have looked at film of the Seahawks and 49ers games and saw how Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick gashed the Cardinals defense, which all of a sudden has become very run friendly. In the last six weeks of the season, Arizona has given up 934 yards rushing – a far cry from what they were giving up earlier on in the season.

“Well, there are obviously some things we’re looking at in those games, but nothing too much because we run completely different styles of offense,” Newton said. “But, from watching game and game and game of film, hopefully we’ll get some type of keys or clues or try to hone in come Saturday.”

Newton says he’s not concerned with any adjustments the Cardinals defense are making this week and will make on Saturday to him and how he runs his offense.

“I just have to be ready for what they have planned. That’s been my outlook for each and every week,” Newton said. “I know they’re going to have some type of gidget or gadget that’s going in this week. Of course they do, with being coached by a great defensive coordinator [Todd Bowles] as well as having a lot of talent on that team, but my thing has been just take what the defense gives me. If they give me the run, I’ll take the run. If they give me the pass, I’ll take the pass and do exactly what Coach [Ron Rivera] tells me to do.”

The Cardinals are no longer 11-5 and the Panthers are no longer 7-8-1. They’re 0-0 and both are hoping to be 1-0 come Saturday night.

“Every possession is valuable. Every down is important. Every play is crucial. That’s what playoff football is all about and that’s what makes it rather unique. The winner keeps going and the loser goes home,” Newton said.

“Our mentality has never changed for a couple weeks now, because we feel like we’ve already been in the playoffs,” Newton said. “If we would have lost a game, it would have been over for us. We can’t think that anybody is going to give us anything. We’re not expecting anything from anybody. What it’s going to come down to is that the team that executes the best will have the upside. We’re hoping that team is going to be us.”






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